By: Mary Milewski
Many little girls dream of someday becoming professional ballerinas, dancing with the grace of a swan, in the spotlight before thousands. Ballerina Zippora Karz, 35, is proof that diabetes doesn’t stop dreams and goals from being reached.
“If you have a love for something, diabetes will not stop you,” she said. “You need to put the care, effort and attention into it to take care of yourself-_and then you can do it.”
The recently retired ballerina looked back on her 16-year world-class career and recalled how she overcame the difficulties of managing both type 1 diabetes and a demanding career that kept her busy around the clock.
An Extraordinary Talent
Zippora started studying dance when she was 7, in her hometown of Northridge, California. By the time she was 15, the teachers noticed her extraordinary talent and helped Zippora make it to the New York City Ballet School of American Ballet. At 18, she was invited to join the New York City Ballet-one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world.
Before Zippora even knew she had type 1 diabetes, she was dancing in demanding lead roles, including “The Nutcracker,” “Swan Lake,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Apollo,” “Agon” and “Symphony in C.” Her career as a professional ballerina progressed from apprentice to becoming a member of corps de ballet. Zippora reached the ultimate goal when she was promoted to soloist with the New York City Ballet, touring the United States, Europe and Japan.
Along Comes Diabetes
It was during this busy period that Zippora started noticing symptoms of frequent urination and excessive thirst. She continued her daily routine: taking classes in the morning, rehearsing for six hours, going upstairs to put on make up and doing about three ballets.
At 21, however, Zippora was diagnosed with diabetes. She now had to fit the two extremes together in a carefully choreographed life routine.
“Life was so busy,” she said. “I really denied it at first. I was being pushed into a lot of solo and leading roles after just two years with the company. I had a lot of core roles, and at the same time a ballet was being choreographed by a director that would feature me.”
The difficult reality of taking daily insulin injections and blood sugar tests presented a stark contrast to her childhood ballerina dreams. But she soon realized that if she continued caring for her body she could do anything _ even live the fast-paced life of a famous ballerina.
“You do that every day,” said Zippora, who recently retired but has just as much passion now for teaching ballet. “It’s like a marathon runner, but it doesn’t just stop after one ballet.”
Zippora was willing to do whatever it took to help her body deal with its new situation so it would not affect her career.
“There was no way that anything was going to stop me from where I was headed in my career,” she recalls. “Everything in my life was focused on dancing.”
Testing Nine Times Per Day
Zippora’s daily routine changed to include blood sugar testing every hour or two:
9 a.m.-Wake up. Test. Take insulin, eat and get ready for morning dance class at 10:30.
10:30 a.m.-Another blood sugar test before class.
Noon to 6 p.m.-Rehearsal. Test every two hours, eat lunch and take insulin as needed.
6:30 p.m.-Test prior to applying make-up for the evening performance. Then off to warm-up for the performance at 7:30 p.m.
8 p.m.-Test 10 minutes before curtain.
11 p.m.-Performance is over. Test immediately after performance and take insulin.
1 a.m.-Test blood sugar and go to bed.
The key for Zippora was “not to have so many ups and downs” with blood sugar levels. In New York she lived with her grandmother, who had also been a professional dancer and loved health foods. Together they worked on meal planning.
To prevent hypoglycemia, Zippora learned to always carry dates, figs and bananas in her ballet bag. She always tested her blood sugar before performing to eliminate hypoglycemia while the curtains were open.
Success in Ballet and Diabetes Management
The key to being successful in ballet and diabetes management was testing blood sugars often, Zippora says. Keeping good control equaled feeling better for better dancing.
“The art of ballet is the delicacy of the way you use your toes, your hands and fingers,” she explains, “With every nuance you have to feel your whole body. If my blood sugars were off, it would interfere with that key to have that vital connection with my body.”
Diabetes didn’t slow Zippora down, even as she became a famous ballerina and was seen on the television show “Dance in America’s” broadcast of Balanchine’s “Western Symphony”. People came from all over the world to see her dance.
Zippora’s blood sugars were not always perfect, but she tried not to blame herself. Her message to other people with diabetes is clear:
“You are only human and diabetes is very difficult. People shouldn’t feel like a failure if they can’t do it. The world is a difficult place, and there are high demands on people.”
For kids with diabetes, she offers this advice:
“Have compassion for yourself. Try not to get upset at your body for having this disease. That was my problem. I was mad at my body for trying to stop me from where I was headed in life. It’s a very difficult thing to be dealing with.”
Family support also helped her manage diabetes and dancing. Because her mother, grandmother and sister all danced, they were there to help.
“My father really was amazing,” Zippora said. “He’s a doctor. He helped me learn more about it. My mother was also incredibly supportive.”
Hanging up Her Ballet Shoes
Because of the rigorous workouts involved in dancing, Zippora decided to leave the New York City Ballet when she got injuries unrelated to diabetes.
“I wanted to leave while I was on top and absolutely loving it,” she said. “I’ve had such an amazing experience with this. Now I love teaching as much as I loved dancing.”
Zippora lead a “marathon schedule” doing what she loves for over 16 years. She now lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and teaches ballet for the George Balanchine Trust, staging works for major ballet companies.
“Looking back, I see I went down the road that was right for me. I’d never have taken that road if it were not for diabetes. In some ways, a limitation is a blessing in disguise.”
Zippora Karz has appeared with the New York City Ballet in the following productions:
- Ballo Della Regina
- Cotege Hongrois
- Divertimento No. 15
- The Four Temperaments
- Haieff Divertimento
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream
- The Nutcracker (“The Sugar Plum Fairy”)
- Swan Lake
- The Concert
- The Goldberg Variations
- In G Minor
- Les Petits Riens
- Mozart Serenade